THE ELEPHANT KILLERS
Updated: Sep 18
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The intense chill of dawn during the Botswana winter was thrust upon us by the open-air jeep, but this temporary suffering was relieved by the thrill of seeing seven voracious, heraldic cats stalking down the bank of the Chobe River. Only traveling for about twenty minutes, it takes a bit to get to the actual park area, this was our first game drive into Chobe National Park. I’d been to nineteen countries in Africa at that point, but this was my first time in Botswana. Botswana contains four national parks and a multitude of game reserves. Two of the best are Chobe National Park and the Okovango Delta, situated in Moremi Game Reserve. The star attraction of these parks is the king of the big five, the lion. Botswana is well known among game wardens and rangers for the unusual behavior of these ferocious hunters, due to climate and hydrological variations.
Chobe National Park was the first national park created in Botswana, in 1967. Over eighty percent of Botswana consists of “thirstland”, which is the Kalahari Desert. When we arrived at Chobe and were driving on the main road, your typical bumpy, dirt road that you find in the safari parks, there was a long strip of land running parallel to the road, separated by the Chobe River. The sun was just starting to break, and seven lions appeared spread out on line, with five females in the front and two large males behind them. Botswana has a huge diversity of available food sources for lions; buffalo, hippos, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, waterbuck, elephants, springbok and giraffe. As the lions descended upon bunches of prey who were grazing, a male lion moved toward a baby hippo. He got quite close, before the mother came and chased him away.
The Okavango Delta is a swampy inland delta, located in northern Botswana. The Okavango is remarkable when it comes to lions for one main reason. It is that lions typically don’t like water, but in the Okavango Delta, which has a wet season and a dry season, the lions actually swim in search of prey. They have to make this adaptation because they need to move between the small islands , created by termite mounds, which make up this grassy plain. Because of this the lions in the Delta, are known to have abnormally (for a lion) developed chests and fore quarters from their time spent navigating the water. The main food source for lions in Okovango is buffalo.
A third area of Botswana, which I didn’t originally mention, is a place where lions have survived when the odds were against doing so, is the Savute region. The adaptation they used though is amazing. The Savuti channel moves from the Linyanti water system near the border of Botswana and Namibia, then runs into the Savute Marsh. Around 1981, the Savute dried up, removing a lot of the food sources that this very large lion pride consumed. The pride was estimated to be around thirty lions, so they were a spectacularly dangerous foe. More than likely out of necessity, this pride became known as the elephant killers, as not only did they kill young elephants but full-grown ones as well. Approximately 2008-2009, the Savute began to flow again, and apparently the lion pride has split up. While the elephant killing behavior has decreased, it does still occur.
I thoroughly enjoyed Botswana and it is a country I am eager to re-visit and explore the other national parks. In the northern part of Botswana, there are four prides that exhibit extreme hunting behavior. One pride is known for killing almost exclusively hippo, while three prides subsist on almost exclusively buffalo. Chobe National Park and the Chobe River provide the lions who inhabit them a substantial and wide-ranging food source. The lions of the Okavango Delta demonstrate how their physical characteristics allow them to be dangerous in a plethora of hunting environments. You see this as well in the Savute region, which is actually part of Chobe, where the lion’s strength and their ability to hunt as a coordinated group, allows them to take down elephants. My advice is if you make it to Africa, definitely schedule some time for Botswana, especially if you are on safari, make sure you book one that include either Chobe or Okavango or both.